What Jason Kelce meant to the Eagles as a teammate, player

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Monday, March 4, 2024

(The following article was first published on Jan. 16).

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in February -- once he watched the red and yellow confetti fall from the sky, after he congratulated his brother, Travis, and shared a long hug with his mom, Donna -- Jason Kelce stood at his locker stall inside State Farm Stadium and spoke about the types of things he contemplates when considering whether to retire.

"You try and weigh whether you think, one, you can still do it at a high level, and two, whether you want to do it. I think that's the big thing. It's a grind," he said.

"It's getting harder every year. I'm nowhere near the player I used to be. Jalen Hurts makes all of us look a lot better and makes my job a lot easier. It's only going to go [downhill], and whether you can be accountable to your teammates and perform at that level and mentally you have the energy to be the difference-maker that I feel I am in that regard, all that stuff will factor in."

He decided to give it another go, encouraged by the play of his quarterback and hopeful he could stand on the mountaintop -- or more literally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, in full Mummers attire -- one more time.

But it was not to be. The Eagles exited in the wild-card round of the playoffs following an uninspired 32-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Kelce grew emotional as the final seconds ticked off the clock. When he reached the locker room, he told teammates that he had played his last game, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

"If it was his last game, he was one of the best teammates I've ever had," said right tackle Lane Johnson. "A guy whose passion is unmatched. A guy who I saw Philly try to run him out of town. I saw a guy emerge from that and become the best center maybe that's ever played."

The Hall of Fame almost certainly awaits. Kelce, 36, made seven Pro Bowls in 13 seasons and was named First Team All-Pro for the sixth time this season -- proof that he played at an elite level up to his final snap. Since the 1970 merger, he is the only center who has won a Super Bowl and earned first-team All-Pro honors six times.

Little was made of his arrival when he was selected in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. A walk-on running back at Cincinnati who converted to guard and later center, he was undersized and overshadowed by the big "Dream Team" free agency splash signings of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, quarterback Vince Young & Co. that year -- a group that famously flamed out. Kelce, meanwhile, won the starting center job and became a mainstay even as his head coaches changed from Andy Reid to Chip Kelly to Doug Pederson to Nick Sirianni.

He missed a month following sports hernia surgery in 2014 and had a rough campaign in 2015 that raised questions about his long-term status in Philadelphia. Then he went on to establish a franchise record by starting 156 consecutive regular-season games despite dealing with myriad injuries.

"Not only do I think he's one of the best offensive linemen that I've ever been around -- and I've been around some good offensive linemen -- I also think he's the toughest guy I've ever been around," Sirianni said in 2021.

Kelce helped redefine his position, illustrating the benefits of lighter, quicker centers who can get out in space. Among the lasting images of his time in the league will be of him in full sprint 20 and 30 yards downfield, paving the way and demolishing linebackers and defensive backs.

That, plus his knowledge of the game, made him one of the most impactful players in the sport.

Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland is considered one of the preeminent assistant coaches in the league, but teammates describe a collaborative process between he and Kelce during the week when game plans along the front are assembled. Left tackle Jordan Mailata tried to explain Kelce's mind this way: he can look at a still image of a play sequence and bring it to life, seeing every problem that could arise and diagnose how to resolve them, all in an instant. He has been a next-level problem-solver pre-snap for a host of quarterbacks.

Kelce became a local icon after the Eagles' Super Bowl LVII win in 2018, when he went on top of the Art Museum with a belly full of beer and in full costume and barked about underdogs and being counted out and connecting the team's identity with the city.

Somehow, that ballooned into national and now international fame, starting with the Eagles-Chiefs "Kelce Bowl" and their popular "New Heights" podcast, and hitting another stratosphere when Travis started dating one of the most recognizable people on the planet, Taylor Swift.

Still, Kelce has maintained his everyman qualities, arriving to game days in flip-flops or dad sneakers, and mingling with the locals at bars and eateries and town fairs.

To Philadelphia, he is one of them. To the world, he is the relatable older brother of a glitz and glamour sibling. To the NFL, he is an all-time great.

"He's a legend in the city -- really in the league," Hurts said. "I don't want to do a disservice to him and the things he's been able to do and overcome. His journey to where he is now didn't come easy. It's been a long, long time coming for him, and every year since I've been here, it's been, 'Are you going to come back?'

"But he knows how much I love and appreciate him. He knows how much I've learned from him. He'll forever have a special place in my heart."

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